Tackling global warming with the circular economy

Consumer-driven, profit-based model of ‘take, make, waste’ has to change

I feel slightly guilty about returning to the subject of climate change, as I know readers may be a little weary of me concentrating on this topic. However, keeping this issue in the public eye is like brushing your teeth – a pain, but an even bigger pain if it drops off the radar.

If you are already well briefed on climate change, you will know about the circular economy but it is generally not a hot public topic. There is so much media emphasis on removing fossil fuels from electricity generation by developing renewable wind and solar power, you may think that success here will eliminate all CO2 emissions.

But not so – removing fossil fuel from electrical power generation will only reduce overall emissions by 55 per cent. The remaining 45 per cent of emissions are generated by the manufacture, use and disposal of cars, clothes, electrical/electronic devices and all the other products we use. To eliminate these emissions we must switch over to a circular economy.

In the linear economy, most decisions are based on profitability. Many products are designed with built-in obsolescence. They fail after a short time, are scrapped and new products bought

Ever since the industrial revolution we have practised a linear economy, characterised in shorthand as “take, make, waste”. We take raw materials from the earth, make products from these materials, use the products and throw them away as waste, destined for landfill or incineration – waste is the end point of a product’s life cycle.


All kinds of waste now threaten our ecosystems; plastics, textiles, food waste, electronic waste, etc. Extracting/processing raw materials for manufacturing products and then disposing of these products accounts not only for 45 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions, it also causes 90 per cent of biodiversity loss and consumes 75 per cent more resources than the earth can withstand in the long term. Persisting with this linear model will call for two planet earths by 2050 to supply the necessary raw resources.

In the linear economy, most decisions are based on profitability. Many products are designed with built-in obsolescence. They fail after a short time, are scrapped and new ones bought. Many electronic/electrical devices are designed never to be opened, serviced or repaired and are scrapped when they become faulty. And when they can be repaired, buying new ones often costs little more than repairing the devices.

The clothing and fashion industry contributes hugely to our waste problems. About 60 per cent of textiles (polyester, acrylics, nylon and others) are not recyclable and end up in landfill. The fashion industry produces 10 per cent of annual carbon emissions and is the world’s second worst offender in terms of water and plastic pollution.

On the other hand, the circular economy starts with product design, aimed at keeping resources in use for as long as possible, repairing and extracting maximum use from these resources, reducing waste to a minimum and recovering/regenerating products and materials at the end of a product’s long service life. Adopting circular strategies in five key areas alone – cement, aluminium, steel, plastics and food – would eliminate emissions from the production of goods equivalent to eliminating emissions from all transport.

The world economy is only 9 per cent circular, but progress is under way. For example, all major car manufacturers are developing the “circular car” in which the use of aluminium, carbon-fibre, glass, fabric, rubber, steel, plastics, etc, is efficiently maximised, ideally producing zero material waste and zero pollution during manufacture, use and disposal.

The Government recently published a Circular Economy Strategy. We should welcome this and press to ensure effective changes are quickly implemented.

There are countless things we can each do to help develop a circular economy. We can segregate and recycle waste, choose eco-friendly household appliances, conserve water, drive electric cars, leave the car at home and use public transport or cycle, plant a tree, buy quality clothes and get a long life out of them – the list is long.

The slogan “reduce, reuse, recycle” is associated with the circular economy, but it is much more than that. One very important bonus of undertaking personal efforts in this area is that it counteracts tendencies to become over-anxious or depressed by the global warming threat.

We have one chance left to deal with global warming. If we fail, we bequeath a ruined planet to our children. We must use our votes to back our convictions and hold politicians to account. The time for setting targets and not meeting them is over.

William Reville is an emeritus professor of biochemistry at UCC